The difference between architecture and urban design (and their pursuit of truth)

“No, he’s not [a musician] like Williamson; Callahan’s coming from a different place.”1 

The pairing of urban design and architecture, in a blog entitled EnvisagedCity, would almost certainly suggest that the architecture in question is that of…what, exactly? And here is the dilemma. How do you define something that in its traditional meaning refers to the design of buildings, and by another definition — the one prevalent in contemporary usage by other disciplines and the media — refers to the structure, or to the arrangement of something, anything: the ‘architecture’ of the carbon pricing scheme, the ‘architecture of problems’,2 the ‘architecture’ of the web? And if we were to acknowledge the growing concern to broaden the meaning of architecture — the discipline — beyond the design of buildings, to entail, in fact, the essence of the abstract meaning of the word (i.e. structure) and its application to cities, then what structure of the city are we referring — political, economic, spatial, or all three? Moreover, to what degree does architecture, of anything, penetrate beyond structure, or address the meta-structure? Did the architect of the carbon pricing scheme devise the idea of a scheme, or just devise the workings of the scheme? And if the architecture of problems gets to the essence of problems through an understanding of the structure and context of the problem, suggesting architecture is strategic, what then for ill-defined areas of concern that cannot be defined as ‘problems’, such as community futures? Can architecture — the discipline — cope with this or is it outside its scope?

Regardless of which meaning of architecture is adopted for the discipline, there is an apparent conflation of architecture and urban design today. The distinction made between them in academia and practice — usually within the one school or practice — and the adoption of the two disciplines by individual architects who are either ‘architects’ or ‘urban designers’, or both, is confusing and certainly limiting to the advancement and application of design expertise in the making of our cities. And if ‘transdisciplinary’ practice is apparently a breakthrough in traditional ‘siloed’ forms of education for ‘designers’ of the ‘built environment’, what is the discipline, exactly? Why not just ‘design’, or ‘urban design’, or, if architecture is to be more than buildings, then ‘architecture’?

Defining urban design

In a recent post, I defined through the comparison of planning and design, the meaning of urban design as essentially what the term attests to, i.e. the design of the urban. I defined design as an activity that begins with desire, and transforms or re-imagines existing conditions and circumstances toward an intention; and the urban as the basis of why cities exist and how they do so, which is through the exchange of culture and commerce for the generation and sharing of broad forms of wealth. So there isn’t a need to say too much more about urban design, except for the purpose of outlining how it differs to architecture — the discipline — which, in itself, first requires some exploration (and for the first time, specifically, on this blog).

Defining architecture — the discipline

Despite the generic nature of the term with which the discipline architecture now shares, architecture has been practiced for centuries, and has been synonymous with the design of buildings. In fact, architecture is considered to be a discipline of the ‘built environment’. But is it the ‘buildings’ and the ‘built environment’ that is to be designed?

Recently, an Architect friend ‘tweeted’ a photo of a large ocean liner moored in Circular Quay, in Sydney. He remarked that it would be fun to design one of those “buildings”.3 Having already begun to sketch this post at the time of receiving his tweet, and knowing my colleague’s keen interest in society and culture, I replied, via twitter: “If naval architects design boats, what do architects design?”

Unlike naval architecture or landscape architecture, architecture — the discipline — remains as just ‘architecture’. This raises questions to do with the discipline as well as those other disciplines which adopt the term architecture within their title. Is naval architecture termed as such simply to differentiate boats from buildings? Or is it so termed to capture the design of maritime infrastructure, and not just boats? Is landscape architecture the ‘architecture’ of landscape, or is ‘landscape’ a component of architecture? What if the ‘landscape’ in landscape architecture were to mean the abstract sense of the term? What ‘architecture’ would that imply: extensive? And would this ‘landscape’ be green? Where does this leave the architecture and landscape architecture disciplines?

Conflation of architecture and art

Despite architecture being linked so interdependently with buildings, there is a common understanding, founded by the Greeks, that Architecture is the master art, the ruling art: archi (ruling or principal) and technê (art or craft).4 But this is both ambiguous and inconsistent. For instance, did the Greeks refer to architecture as the principal or ruling art because the Greeks considered architecture itself to be art, and the preeminent one no less? Or did they consider it the principal or ruling art as in the principal housing structure within which art is displayed or performed; that architecture itself was not art, but above it — in the same way that the ‘creator’ made the earth and made the Greeks but the creator isn’t Greek nor the Greeks the creator? And in the context of the buildings for which the Greek architecon was responsible for delivering, it isn’t clear, at least lexically, whether the Greeks referred to the art or craft of the physical making of the building, or to the conception of the building, or both? Regardless, a builder/mason isn’t necessarily an artist, so the chief builder is hardly the greatest of all artists. And even if he were, art is not architecture, and architecture is not art.

I have never subscribed to the notion that architecture is art, because I maintain that architecture is design. Art and design are two very different subjects and processes. How is this important? In comparing architecture to art, we can eradicate common erroneous interpretations of what architecture is and get a little closer to comparing it with urban design.

Just as architecture is a generic term, applying to an abstract construct, not a specific application, there are many forms of art: visual art, fine art, performing art, to name a few. And we refer to many practices as ‘art’: the ‘art of writing’; the ‘art of bicycle maintenance’, the ‘art of public speaking’. We also use the term to describe cunning ways: the ‘Artful Dodger’, or peculiar difference: ‘arty’, even beauty in the human execution of a skill: the ‘artistry’ of Roger Federer.

Essentially architecture is not art because architecture is required to be something — related to human need. Art can be any thing — for anybody. That’s the fundamental difference between art and design. But they do share common characteristics. Both pursue truth, and both rely on spatiality to do so. The difference is in how they go about it.

If, as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”5 (think the cubist space-realism stemming from the distorted face of the Weeping Woman), architecture is, or should be, proof to truth. Where the artist works with a spatiality, e.g. visual (images and objects) and performance (dancer, sound, stage), to declare a truth that they have found, the architect’s very work — their responsibility — is to perceive from others their truth, and to enable, through a spatiality, that truth to become a lived reality.

The architect Timothy Hill refers to the process of architecture as being deductive, and not creative;6 design, not art. We could say that the process of architecture manifests as a spatiality of and for a truth deduced from what is observed and told — most of the time as a ‘lie’: the architect seeks to deduce the truth from the ‘lies’ that keep us beholden to the very realities that cause us to be in need of design: that which as people we all inherently know, even understand, but cannot identify or express. In architecture, the process of determining space, therefore, is not creative; the spatiality only exists by and for a truth that is deduced; we could say the spatiality is true to the truth. Art, on the other hand, manifests as a spatiality created — as a lie — in response to a truth that has been found; the lie made-up is essential to illicit the truth, just as darkness is necessary for the pureness of light to be perceived. The defining quality in each, therefore, is not defined by spatiality per se, but where that spatiality comes from. For where the spatiality is derived determines the meaning afforded. In architecture, the spatiality is derived from the deduction of truth from lie; in art it is derived through the creation of lie to reveal truth. No wonder artists Brian Eno (musician) and Peter Schmidt (painter) advocate the idea of “[g]ardening, not architecture” as a way to overcome blockages in creative work.7


What, then, of application, for architecture?  What is the nature and scope of the truth to be deduced and lived? Herein is the defining question for architecture.

If architecture’s focus is on people and living, as is urban design’s, the critical question for architecture is not what scale or scope of spatiality it should address (building, neighbourhood, district), but to what truth, in people and in living, does it seek to address, and to what degree? This is, ultimately, what would distinguish architecture from urban design.

To illustrate, I’ll refer to the renown, Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki, who said a house should be designed like a city, and a city like a house.8 After hearing the architect speak these words at a conference, and watching him break down with humility as he spoke of the responsibility of being charged with designing a school for children displaced and suffering from the horrific 2011 Tohoku earthquake, it seems almost sacrilegious to counter the respected man. But alas, I only offer this in critical review.

I do not concur with Maki on this idea, not only because, as Alexander Cuthbert said, buildings enclose and cities are open,9 or, as Richard Sennett reveals, because of the distinction between private and public life,10 but because a house, indeed any building, is part of the evidence of what makes the city — what Henri Lefebvre said was the “projection of society on the ground”.11 Any design for the city needs to deal with the decisions made by people who determine the building forms, not the other way round.

Cedric Price may have been close to this when he told his client that maybe they needed a divorce, not a new house.12 Architects can assist the lives of their clients, but architects for the building-client take-as-given their client’s physical and socio-economic conditions because they are operating within a component of the city. The service of this client’s architect is to the client, principally, with implication to a broader public; their service is not to or for a populous.

The essential difference, then, between this architecture and urban design, is that the former seeks to enable improvement in a client’s living, or in the lives of people for whom their client represents, through the client’s or the people represented by the client’s established means, whereas the latter seeks to establish the means of living, for a community.

Returning to my Sydney friend who tweeted the image of the boat he thought would be a fun building to design, he replied to my question that asked what architects designed, by saying “[w]as buildings then built environment. Now systems? Reshaping the flow of matter, energy and ideas to a more productive state.”13

My answer was that that was a “nice” response. But still, it seems a long, long way from the design of buildings derived from a client’s established means of living. The answer penetrates beyond appearances and forms, and deals with simple truths, although if I were to take the answer definitively, and ignore the limitations of writing within the maximum 140-characters required of tweets, then the response would seem to leave out people from the core of the definition, somewhat.14 After all, systems are a human construct devised to make sense of what humans’ sense. As such, they aren’t the focus of design; they are not themselves something to be designed. They are a tool or method used in the process of design; the process of enabling transformation of the human state, ultimately. And this is precisely why I refer to urban design as process, not product, and the urban designer as change agent, not producer of ‘designs’.

The difference between the discipline architecture, and urban design

So the difference between architecture — the discipline — and urban design is really a question relating to the application of architecture. If architecture refers root causes for living, core truths relating to life, to community, and to society, then it really refers the architecture of the urban. If it doesn’t, then it’s the architecture of something else.

Regardless of terminology, we can say that the vital urban project of generating broad forms of wealth that can be shared, is one that has to be enabled through spatial political economy — the very basis of society and, therefore, cities. This is both structure and phenomenon through, and by which, cities exist. And it is the means by which transformation of the human state — for many — may occur. Of critical importance is addressing how decisions are made, and the transformation that is needed in the values of the individuals who control politics, economy, and spatiality, and in the emergent cultures of the organisations of those individuals. This is an ‘honest’ meaning of the urban, and the vital challenge for an urban designer.

The critical issue facing cities, of course, is not one that is to do with distinguishing architects from urban designers, so much, but one concerning what architects and urban designers are doing — and can be doing — about cities. Importantly, understanding the difference between architecture and urban design may help us understand how a meaningful lived reality is an urban project that is multivalent, and one of great complexity that is in need of the transformational process of design — and the agents for this transformation. This is a challenge that is cultural. It is enacted through politics, enabled through economy, and is manifested spatially. It requires so much more than the design of buildings made with hands.

1. Stephen Scott, pers comm. Comment made whilst listening to Bill Callahan, in reply to a statement that Callahan sounded a lot like John Williamson (“True Blue”).

2. The Helsinki Design Lab refer to this as ‘strategic design’; refer HDL Blog: Note: the HDL’s strategic design capability is to be closed in June 2013, as explained on the blog.

3. John Choi, tweet via @johnwchoi, 2013.

4. Robert Nelson, “Nightmare on Main Street”, Visual Arts in The Age, 2011.

5. Pablo Picasso,

6. Timothy Hill, “Side project with Timothy Hill”, State Library of Queensland, APDL lecture series, (Brisbane), 2012.

7. Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Obliques Strategies.

8. Fumihiko Maki, presentation at the RAIA’s National Conference, Natural Artifice, (Melbourne), 2011.

9. Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.

10. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Faber, 1977.

11. Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, University of Minnesota Press, (Minneapolis), 2003[1970], as quoted by Martin Kornberger in “Governing the City: From Planning to Urban Strategy”, Theory, Culture & Society 2012 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore), Vol. 0(0): 1-23.

12. Cedric Price, unsourced.

13. John Choi, tweet via @johnwchoi, op cit.

14. John subsequently kindly provided me with a copy of a lecture he gives, which provided context to his tweet. The lecture material provides provocative thought and historical context, and certainly is founded on a ‘productive state’ being about the ‘needs and desires of people’ within earth’s ‘closed loop system’.

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